The shutdown has exposed a problem with equitable access to the internet, and organizations across the city are trying to help bridge the gap.

Prior to the disruption to school and work caused by Covid-19, access to the internet was already a problem for some people. While the assumption may be that such challenges are common only in rural areas without adequate technological infrastructure, many Central Ohio residents also lack service or devices with connectivity, which can be too costly. The pandemic has made the disparity between the haves and have-nots far more visible.

“Digital access was not always looked at as something critical until now,” says Kaleem Musa of Black Tech 614, an organization that provides community and connection for black technology professionals. “As companies and schools turn to remote options, the need for access has grown. In a sense, some still look at the internet as a luxury, when in fact it’s more of a utility like electricity or gas.”

Society’s reliance on the internet has made it increasingly important for seeking employment information, researching educational opportunities, completing homework or simply communicating with distant family members. The quick shift to remote work and online learning has sent organizations scrambling to help.

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For many years, public libraries have shouldered the burden of providing a bridge between internet access and those who cannot afford it. “Libraries have a long history of filling what we call the ‘digital divide,’ particularly when we’re open. In general, we play that role as a social service catchall,” says Charlie Hansen, chief administrative officer for Columbus Metropolitan Library.

Typically, CML branches provide Wi-Fi on their premises but keep the signal confined to the building for security reasons. When the coronavirus came along, the libraries extended Wi-Fi to the parking lots to accommodate students who need the internet to participate in remote learning. Other internet hotspots are listed on the state’s InnovateOhio website.

“What’s been learned is that the notion that the internet is ubiquitous and everyone has it at high speed is not true,” Hansen says. According to research by Microsoft, only 57 percent of Franklin County residents have high-speed service suitable for videoconferencing and streaming at home.

In May, the Columbus library system partnered with the nonprofit PCs for People to provide computers for only $20 apiece to families in need, with curbside pickup at the Whitehall branch. The Columbus Dispatch reported that Columbus City Schools and other local districts have made Google Chromebooks available to students who don’t have computers at home, and South-Western City Schools sent out 150 satellite-driven portable Wi-Fi devices. In a partnership with the Columbus school district rolled out in early June, COTA began parking a Wi-Fi-enabled bus at the Forest Park YMCA three times per week to extend free internet access within a 100-foot radius to neighborhood students.

Musa believes that to address the digital divide in the long run, we must gather more data. “First, get information on who does not have it specifically and understand why. We give free and/or reduced lunch according to data,” he says. He recommends implementing a publicly available broadband program in the same vein as other essential resources.

“If a society is going to progress in any capacity,” Musa continues, “it needs all of its citizens to have access to the tools that will allow them to contribute and reach their full potential.”

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